“To an unknown god” or “to the unknown God”?

I was speaking with a friend recently about the best way to translate the altar inscription that Paul saw in Athens, which he described in his speech to the Areopagus:

Agnosto theo

Should this be translated “to an unknown god” (as in the NIV, NLT, NASB, etc.) or “to the unknown god” (as in the ESV, KJV, NKJV, etc.)?

Greek grammar allows either translation, so the decision needs to be made based on context.  It’s doubtful that the Athenians, by putting up this altar, were saying, “We don’t really know the true God, but at least we know that we don’t know, so we’re putting up this altar to acknowledge that God.”  It’s much more likely that the Athenians were saying, “We’ve already got altars to all the gods we know, but in case we missed one, here’s an altar for that one, too.”  This suggests that “to an unknown god” is the correct translation of what the Athenians intended.

However, Paul seems to be taking advantage of the ambiguity in the Greek phrase and addressing the Athenians as if they had dedicated this altar to the true God, whom they were worshipping without realizing it.  “You are ignorant of the very thing you worship,” Paul says, “and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”  He then introduces the Athenians to “the God who made the world,” who is “the Lord of heaven and earth,” and who sent Jesus and raised him from the dead.

So it appears that when the Athenians put up the altar, they meant it to say “To an unknown god.”  But when Paul read the inscription back to them in his speech, as far as he was concerned, it said “To the unknown God.”

Of course it’s impossible to capture this nuance in a single English translation, which has to say one thing or the other.  But comparing different translations gives us a window into the fascinating dynamic of Paul’s speech, in which he cleverly and creatively finds  common ground that allows him to introduce Jesus to yet another group of people.

For some follow-up thoughts on this topic, see this post.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on ““To an unknown god” or “to the unknown God”?”

  1. I believe the Paul was meaning just what he said. They were superstitious. They knew of God, however they really did not know God. That is the reason men make so many idols, because it gives them a God they can touch and feel. Something they can look to. That is the reason the Athenians were constantly looking for something new is because there images they had made of what they thought God was or what he looked like could never satisfy their longing to know the true and living God. God was hidden behind a vail of flesh “Jesus Christ” Paul was there making known to them the Unknown God. I would adventure to say that the ones who believed Paul and saw that Jesus was the true and living God did not have to continue in their search for something new.

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